Letters From Russia: The Housewife’s Hay Market

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is still so modern we can relate to its passions and fits, and, if we know where to look, even its landmarks. Veronica Khokhlova takes us through 11 stops of modern St. Petersburg.


On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. Bridge.

Thus begins Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. The young man is Rodion Raskolnikov; the fictional ‘S. Place’ is what we call Stolyarniy Pereulok; ‘K. Bridge’ is known as Kokushkin Most—and I happen to live right next to it nearly a century and a half later.


On a sunless day in late February I scrutinize my receipt at a drugstore on Sadovaya Street, very close to the famous Kokushkin Most. I notice that I’ve just paid twice for the more expensive medicine that I bought only once, whereas the cheaper one isn’t on the receipt at all. The cashier, a sweet young woman, apologizes and returns the difference to me. She’s polite and sounds sincere: Who knows, maybe she didn’t really intend to overcharge me.


On a curved little street that veers off Sadovaya and is my shortcut to Sennoy Rynok (the Hay Market), there’s a building with an appeal written diligently on its wall: ‘YUDIN OTSTAN’ OT KHODORKOVSKOGO’ (‘Yudin, leave Khodorkovsky alone’). It’s been here since last November, but recently a pale yellow slur has been added across the jailed oil tycoon’s name: ‘ZHID’ (‘Kike’).

In the 19th century, this little street, Pereulok Brinko, was called Tairov Pereulok; it housed a number of cheap brothels and Raskolnikov once gave 15 kopecks to a girl here, out of pity. Alyona Ivanovna, the old moneylender murdered by Raskolnikov, was known to be ‘rich as a kike.’


In the middle of the market square there’s a huge pile of old, dirty snow; a charming blue-eyed girl, aged nine or 10, is chasing a boy around it. He climbs the snow pile and she runs up after him—but as soon as she’s there, she turns around and rushes back down. She looks angry, despite the cutest golden curls that have slipped out of her woolen hat—and she is angry indeed, because she’s just seen a few enormous turds lying on top of the snow pile, like landmines, partially obscured by the darkish mixture of snow and mud.


It’s always very slippery in the space between the two doors of the Hay Market’s entrance, and I’m used to sliding from the first door to the second as if I’m wearing skates, not my sturdy Sorels. I never forget to hold the door for those who are sliding in behind me, however. It is warm inside the market, and my glasses turn misty. Though I can’t see a thing for a while, I somehow know that there’s nothing but dark brown slush underneath my feet.


The Hay Market is crowded and noisy; its vendors and carriers chat in at least half a dozen tongues, in addition to Russian. But the place lacks the main appeal of a bazaar: the diversity of produce. Meat, fish, veggies, herbs, pickles, fruit—all look the same. Prices are more or less the same, too, and no one is bargaining.

Oranges are as tiny as tangerines, and when I manage to find the largest available, I also spot a woman lying on the ground just a few meters away. Since many people in this neighborhood have historically looked like hopeless drunks, I’m sure at first that the woman down below is one of the drunks. She’s dressed in all black and there’s a cardboard sheet underneath her, a flimsy island in the sea of mud. But as I look closer, I see that she has a mink hat on and her high-heeled shoes are surprisingly shiny for this time of the year. Her head rests on a totally decent leather purse. A couple of dark-haired men approach: They are either vendors or carriers, either from the Caucasus region or from Central Asia. I can tell by their eyes that they are ready—and willing—to help. Someone asks, ‘Is she still breathing?’ I pay for my oranges and come closer. Someone explains, ‘The ambulance will be here soon. She’s an epileptic and a seizure caught her here.’ The woman on the ground has a look of a wounded deer; her hands and face are covered with what appear to be psoriatic spots, the color of clay. Her age is impossible to guess.


An old woman is arguing with a vendor at the sausage counter. ‘SUCHKA!’ (‘You little bitch!’)—she barks so forcefully that I almost drop my bag. Near the central entrance, a nervous-looking woman is yelling at the homeless teenagers. The boys look older than they are—they remind me of women who have aged prematurely.


Owing to the proximity of the Hay Market, the number of establishments of bad character, the preponderance of the trading and working class population crowded in these streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg, types so various were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however queer, would have caused surprise.


On the rimy window by the side entrance I see a scream put in scratching: ‘SKINY SUKI OTSASITE [sic] U KHACHEY’ (‘Fucking skinheads, suck the khachi’s dicks’). This is a tough one to grasp without knowing the context and some of the contemporary slang. The word ‘khach’ means ‘a cross’ in Armenian, but it is now used more and more by the intolerant citizens of Russia as a derogatory term for any and/or all dark-haired non-Russians—the Chechens, Tajiks, Azeris, Georgians, Armenians, et cetera. Two weeks earlier, a group of drunk skinheads killed a nine-year-old Tajik girl who was walking home from a skating rink with her father and cousin. The skating-rink is located in the Yusupov Garden, across Sadovaya Street from the rip-off drugstore. The girl’s father happened to work as a carrier at this very market. Hence, this message to the skinheads: ‘Fucking skins, suck [our] dicks!’


I move over across the market square to the new mall. Among other things, I’m buying the newspaper, Vedomosti. The cashier is taking forever to study the glossy supplement that comes with the paper: She can’t believe this isn’t a separate magazine that I’m attempting to steal. The supplement, for some reason, doesn’t carry the newspaper’s logo—and there is no way for me to prove my innocence. After five minutes, the dumb cashier summons her colleague and they investigate together. I’m beginning to fume and, as a result, forget to buy cigarettes.


I remember about the cigarettes when I’m almost home. So I cross Kokushkin Most and walk in the direction of Raskolnikov’s house, to a lousy, 24-hour store nearby. There, a robust, mustached, drunk man is choosing an alcoholic beverage. He looks like a Pole, or a German—and he’s so drunk he sounds foreign as well. An unusually friendly seller suggests that he buy two liters of something. ‘Two liters? Wow!’ he replies and produces two 100-ruble bills (about $6.50). Then he drops one bill into the mud below and nearly tears it apart trying to rub it dry. The seller offers to help him; her voice and manners are of someone who was trained to serve in a five-star hotel. Eventually, the drunk man leaves with his two liters of the delicious—and relatively cheap—Ukrainian pepper vodka.

Veronica Khokhlova is a native of Kiev, Ukraine, but lives mainly in St. Petersburg, Russia, as a housewife/house-girlfriend without a work permit. When she gets sick of grocery shopping and cooking, she writes, and when she gets sick of writing, she takes pictures. More by Veronica Khokhlova